• Key point. Trial courts can award “sanctions” against parties who pursue frivolous lawsuits. Sanctions may include a requirement that the plaintiff pay the attorney’s fees incurred by a defendant in defending against the frivolous claim.
* A New Jersey court ordered a plaintiff to pay the attorney fees of a church employee because a lawsuit naming the employee as a defendant was frivolous. A child was injured when he fell off his bicycle in a public park during an activity sponsored by his church school. The child’s mother (the “plaintiff”) sued the church, school, and a part-time school employee (“Helen”), claiming that the defendants were responsible for her child’s injuries on the basis of negligent supervision. Helen’s attorney sent a letter to the plaintiff’s attorney, requesting that Helen be removed as a defendant in the case. The attorney noted that Helen did not participate on the trip to the park, and so there was no legal basis for liability. The attorney threatened to seek “sanctions” against the plaintiff’s attorney if Helen was not dismissed. The plaintiff’s attorney did not respond to this letter, and did not dismiss Helen from the lawsuit. Helen’s attorney then asked the trial court to dismiss Helen, and to pay all attorney’s fees incurred by her in the defense of the lawsuit. A trial court dismissed Helen, and ordered the plaintiff to pay Helen’s legal expenses. A state appeals court affirmed this ruling. It noted that an award of attorney’s fees is justified when a plaintiff’s lawsuit is frivolous. New Jersey law specifies that a lawsuit is frivolous if it is “without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” The court concluded that the plaintiff’s claim against Helen met this definition. It concluded, “When plaintiff began this litigation, she had no reason to believe that Helen was liable. Her counsel acknowledged that there was no information of Helen’s participation in the accident at issue and that the lawsuit against her was a shot in the dark …. Certainly after plaintiff’s counsel received the letter from Helen’s attorney advising that she was neither supervising nor otherwise working in her capacity as an employee of the school at the time and place of the accident, plaintiff’s complaint was continued without reasonable basis in fact or law. By this time, plaintiff … knew there was no evidence of Helen’s involvement in the accident at issue and therefore no reason to suspect her liability.”
Application. This case demonstrates an important principle. If a legal claim brought against a church or church employee is frivolous, then the plaintiff (or plaintiff’s attorney) may be liable for “sanctions.” Sanctions are penalties that a trial judge can assess, and may include a requirement that the plaintiff (or plaintiff’s attorney) pay the legal fees of the defendant. The definition of frivolous is similar in most states, and includes a lawsuit that is “without any reasonable basis in law or equity and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” Sarfo v. Quivers, 2002 WL 31432737 (N.J. Super. Ct. 2002).
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